Ishmael

The question whether Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, the bondmaid of Sarah, was an elect or one reprobated cannot help but arise in the mind of every alert Bible student among us. For the Bible seems to teach both. There are passages in the Scriptures in which Ishmael seems to stand before us as an elect, while others seem to set him before us as one reprobated. So the question, what was he, an elect or a reprobated one? 

Let us attempt to answer the question with the Scriptures. Not that it is necessary for us to know. What is more, the Scriptures may not even contain a definite answer to our question. That I nevertheless make the attempt to derive from the Scriptures an answer to our question has another reason. Attempting a thing such as this is a rewarding engagement. As it calls for a close study of all the passages concerned, it results in an increase of our knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. 

Let us now first consider the passages in the Bible in which Ishmael seems to stand before us as one reprobated. Such a passage is Galatians 4:21 to the end of the chapter. In this Epistle, the apostle is exposing the folly of wanting to be under the Law; as some of the members of this church evidently desired. Addressing these Christians he says to them; and this begins our passage, “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the Law, do ye not hear the Law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid and the other by a free woman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the free woman was by promise, which things are an allegory.” 

Abraham’s house was the church in his locality. In this house were Abraham and his wife Sarah, the freewoman, and Isaac who, as her son, was a freeman. In this house were also Hagar, the bondmaid of Sarah, and Ishmael who, as her son, was a bondman. With his mother he was in bondage to Sarah. But Ishmael was not only a bondman according to his social status in Abraham’s house, but he was also a bondman spiritually. He was in bondage to sin and death, implying that he was in bondage to the law and its curse. For of Ishmael it is stated that he was born after the flesh, under the sinful impulses of the flesh, and by its usual power to son devoid of spiritual life. Was he also, in contrast to Isaac, a reprobated one? This is the very question that we are considering. With the answer we had better wait until we have made a closer study of all that is written of him and his mother Hagar especially in this passage. 

Of Isaac it is stated that he was born by promise and was of the promise. The Scriptures shed clear light upon these statements. Through age the body of Abraham had lost its power to beget and the body of Sarah, his wife, the power to conceive and bear the promised child. From this point of view their bodies were dead. But God came to them with His promise, “and he said, ‘I will certainly return unto thee according to the time of life; and lo, Sarah, thy wife, shall have a son.'” This was the promise—the promise of the Gospel, essentially the same Gospel that was proclaimed by God’s own voice at the dawn of history, “I will set enmity . . .,” and by -which God was giving promise to each and everyone of His elect that He would save them from all their sins. It, the promise, became the power of God unto salvation in the dead body of Abraham and in the dead body of Sarah, his wife. The fruit of the working of the promise in their dead bodies was that Abraham received power to beget and Sarah the power to conceive and to bear the promised child. Thus Isaac was born. 

In coming forth from the womb of Sarah, Isaac was as one raised from the dead and therefore, Isaac stands before us in the Scriptures as a mighty sign of His power to bring forth life out of death; as a mighty sign of the power of His promise to change a spiritually dead man into a living saint, to bring such a man out of the sphere of death into the sphere of life as a new creature in Christ Jesus. With this effect the promise became the power of God unto salvation in Isaac and in Abraham and in Sarah. There can be no doubt about this. With this same blessed effect the promise becomes the power of salvation in every elect and therefore, we may read in verse 28 of this passage in Galatians: “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise.” 

So it is. We, God’s elect, as Isaac was, are children of promise. We are born by promise, are the very creatures of promise, and therefore, His children, the children air God. 

It is plain that to be born by promise means more than to be born by the word of God, the word of His providence. All men are born by this word. This word brings a man into being but leaves him what he is by nature, a sinner dead in sin. But to be born also by the word of promise, the promise of the Gospel, is to be brought into being as a living saint. Of Ishmael it is not said that he was born by promise, but only that he was born after the flesh. 

(To be continued) 

—G.M.O.